Katheen Alcalá
The Skeleton in the Closet

She first suspected that something had changed when the yellow roses began to bloom in the weeds at the edge of her porch.

This is the first sentence of a story I wrote for my creative writing workshop with Joanna Russ at the University of Washington. It was late at night when I began, and I was very restless. My husband and I had moved to Seattle the previous September, and we were renting a tiny house with not much room for pacing. I began as a graduate student Winter Quarter, and I was terrified that this was something I would not be able to do - write without impediment, allow the words to flow before the censor built into my head clamped down.

Amalia had never noticed the rosebush before, but she was delighted with it. Yellow was her favorite color. She began to water and coddle the roses, humming an old hymn as she worked.

"Here, Jana. You want a pretty flower?" she said to the little neighbor girl. Jana wouldn't look at the rose, only at Amalia's outstretched hand.

As part of my restlessness, I had even cut bangs into my hair. Something was building inside of me, I just wasn't sure what, until I wrote that first sentence. Then, as though a pressure valve had been released, I was able to get into bed and sleep.

When the girl turned and ran into her house, frightened, Amalia realized that only she could see the yellow roses.

One of the reasons that writing this story was so difficult, was that it was based on my own family. I grew up surrounded by stories, but in that time and place, stories were told for a specific reason. Not to entertain, but for didactic reasons - to provide moral guidance and example. To tell a story just to tell a story, for pure entertainment, felt like a form of heresy. But it was a form to which I was irresistibly drawn.

When I began taking family stories and recasting them in the fictional form, I was not sure how my family would feel. My mother was from a large, insular family, and most of the stories I knew came from her brothers and sisters. The stories concerned the many places they had lived growing up as the children of a Mexican Protestant minister and his wife, our ancestors, eccentric personalities, and the unexplainable. At the same time, these stories were mostly not told outside of the family. Somehow, they would mark our otherness to people, or be too complicated to explain outside of the context of known family history - you had to be brought up in these stories to understand them.

When I began writing my stories, I showed a couple of them to my mother. Her comments were things like "He didn't die of typhoid, he died of scarlet fever." Or "We don't really know what happened after that."

These family stories, whether commonplace or fantastical, were told as history. The meaning of the story was based not on its factuality, but its intent. Once their point was made, the stories were often incomplete. Whatever happened to the maid carrying the knife? I would wonder. Where did our great-grandfather end up after our great-grandmother kicked him out of the house? How did she feel about it? No one in my mother's generation seemed to care. But like Paul Harvey, I wanted to know the rest of the story.

I began writing fiction in order to explain the world to myself - there were too many fragmented or unfinished stories around me. This might be typical of my generation, the children of immigrants. When people leave the place where their families have lived for generations, the geographical context - the mountains, the village - is left behind. Names are changed when people cross borders, second languages do not hold the same meanings as the first. In particular, when separated from the land, indigenous people lose stories, often the sacred stories that hold them together as a group. These stories often define the relationship the people have to the land, and the things they must do to maintain that balance. When they are forced to leave these ancestral dwelling places, the stories cease to have meaning, and so are lost.

My stories, when I began writing, seemed to make my mother nervous. What was it that she was so worried about? Were there deep secrets to be uncovered? Scandal? Had someone in our family actually had sex? Difficult to believe.

I began doing research. Most of the stories were from the era just prior to the Mexican Revolution, and it was a time about which I knew very little. For Mexicans living in the United States, Mexican history seems to begin with the Revolution of 1910, when most of my parent's generation came north. The identity of Mexican American was born in these revolutionary fires, as that of Chicano was forged in the 1960s in the fires of East L.A. My father was a refugee from Central Mexico who walked north with his family as a child. His parents went to work for the Santa Fe Railroad, living in Kansas and Illinois before settling in California. My mother's family lived for two or three years at a time in cities all over northern Mexico and the United States, starting small Protestant congregations and building churches. When the Revolution heated up, my grandfather managed to get appointed to churches on this side of the border.

From books, I began learning how people lived in the days before the Revolution. I began learning about civil law and the Constitution of Mexico after independence from Spain. I looked for books on how people dressed and ate, where the railroads ran.

When a friend sent an invitation to his wedding in Los Angeles, I called an aunt in Monterrey Park whose garage was the unofficial family archive, and asked if I could have permission to look through it. She said she would use that as an excuse to clean it out. When I got there, the third load of old papers was on its way to the dump. Nevertheless, I recovered most of my grandfather's journals from around 1900 to the 1950s. They contained lists of people and the places he had worked for all those years. They contained ticket stubs and light bills, missionary pamphlets, financial accountings, and inspirational sayings to include in his sermons. Occasionally, they contained detailed descriptions of places, and even more rarely, how my grandfather felt or what he thought of something. The journals were artifacts of time and place.

My mother was also there. She had insisted that my father drive her out from San Bernardino. Each time I picked something up, she would say, "What do you want that for?" or "What are you going to do with it?" I finally sat her down in a lawn chair with a pen and a photo album and asked her to write the name of each person she recognized in it. This ruined a few photos, but it enabled me to fish the rest of my grandfather's journals out of the knee-deep pile of papers that still covered the garage floor. Most of them were in the sort of cheap composition books once required of school children. As my "keep" pile grew, I emptied a metal suitcase and filled it with my loot.

My mother had always been reticent about the family stories, but her sisters, especially Julieta, were not. I could count on our visits to Chihuahua every summer while I was growing up as a chance to learn a little more about our family. When three of the sisters were together - Julieta, Lydia and Rosa Fe - they seemed to stimulate the urge in each other to tell stories.

My uncles were more taciturn, but also knew different versions, or different aspects of the same stories. One of the stories is about my youngest uncle, Eduardo. When he was small, the family was given a lamb. It became his pet, and followed him everywhere. Naturally, as these stories go, the lamb ended up on the dinner table, and my uncle refused to eat any. To this day, he still will not eat lamb. But it is always up to him to say so when the story is retold.

In many cases, after the point of a story was made, it would dissolve or branch into a related story. For example, a story was told of visiting a church in Mexico where people shared a common communion cup. One of our cousins told my sister that people spit the "wine" back into the cup, so she refused to drink when it was passed to her. I'm sure my cousin was not telling the truth, but conversation then turns to other stories about the odd practices of this church, rather than following up on the consequences of refusing the communion cup, which is how a fictional story would be told - focusing on the inner life of one character.

These tangential stories served to provide a context for the primary stories. They were part of the web of family and culture that gave meaning to the stories, and also made them so difficult to tell in isolation to someone from another family or culture, which was just about everyone.

So what was my mother so afraid of? What could be more wholesome than a family full of preacher's kids? The story about Amalia poured out of me over the next few days, and even after editing, remained virtually unchanged from the first draft. Amalia, although not her real name, was about someone I knew. It was about one of my mother's other sisters, who was still very much alive at the time.

Every family has stories of eccentricity, of madness, of feeble-minded members, alcoholism, addiction, lust, abandonment, illegitimacy. Our family was no exception. But were there any real skeletons in the closet? Earthshaking secrets that would cause people to cross the street to avoid us?

There were skeletons, but not sexual - although some of that, and not financial, but something else altogether.

As you can see by now, my family was not Catholic, as one might expect. The skeletons in the closet turned out to be ethnic and religious. When my aunts and uncles described my grandfather's conversion, they would say, "No se pago el Catolicismo" - the Catholicism did not stick. That's because, I eventually realized, it was pasted on over a Jewish soul.

One of the family stories was that we were descended from two brothers who came from northern Spain in the late 1700s. They were Jewish. I didn't think too much of this, growing up, and figured we were merely an anomaly among our Mexican American neighbors, who were all good Catholics. We were, as far as I knew, the only Mexican Jewish Protestants on the planet. I began researching this aspect of our family only as part of the whole fabric of life in 19th Century Mexico. Through the historical writings of Vito Alessio Robles about northern Mexico, I learned that Saltillo, the city where my ancestors settled, had been the site of a terrible chapter of the Spanish Inquisition. The Governor of the Province, Luís Carvajál, was accused, along with several members of his family, of being a practicing Jew. He died in prison, and five of his relatives were executed by the auto da fé. This happened before the arrival of my ancestors, but showed that they came to the New World to join an existing community of Jews. This was the first association I had made between my family and the Inquisition. As a relative said recently, "That explains a lot."

Jews who came to Mexico before its independence from Spain in 1840 were almost always Conversos - people who had converted to Catholicism, or Marranos - an archaic, derogatory term for secret Jews. Those who continued to practice their religion did so discreetly even into the 20th Century. So discreetly, in some cases, that they had no idea what the rituals in their lives actually meant. The symbols remained, but the knowledge and religious learning behind them had slowly been lost over the years.

The family stories I had grown up with had this background of hidden Judaism as a larger context. The reticence to share family history with others, the unusual practices and language, even the network of odd Christian congregations that consisted largely of Mexicans of Jewish ancestry, were all part of this legacy. The veil of secrecy that shrouded family gatherings and the accompanying stories were due to the habit of survival.

While most of the stories would not raise an eyebrow in the polyglot, multi-ethnic and religious United States of the 21st Century, five hundred years of conditioning had created a clan of very cautious people. Coming to the United States and becoming subjects of racism directed at all Mexicans did nothing to relieve this attitude of circumspection. The need to keep your head down, blend in, and do your job dovetailed with the earlier strategies for survival that had kept my ancestors alive all these years.

Since the late 1980s, when I began this research on my own, it has been more openly discussed, and even become the subject of academic inquiry. A few useful books have been published, and there is a group that meets regularly to present papers and share resources.

Another family story is that my grandmother, who had been quite beautiful, was half Indian and half Irish. One of my aunts, in particular, was very proud of the Irish part, and may have even influenced my mother to name me Kathleen. Either that, or I was named after the youngest of the Lennon Sisters from the Lawrence Welk Show.

Yet my grandmother's last name had been Martinez before she married. There were no Irish last names in the family, but this was never explained to me when I was little. My grandmother, it turned out, was the result of a rape of her Opata Indian mother, Pastora Curiel, in Tucson. She had known the man who assaulted her, and he had been a red-headed Irishman. Pastora later married a Mexican doctor who gave his last name, Martinez, to my grandmother.

These were a couple of the stories that the family only told a part of - the Catholicism not sticking, the Irish ancestor - in an attempt to preserve family history without putting us in danger, or impugning the honor of individuals. My mother's family was acutely aware of what was considered proper, acceptable behavior, and each of them, at one time or another had been curbed or chastised for straying too close to its boundaries.

In my hunger for stories, I did not uncover a nest of degenerates, but a group of people who, rather than being unique, really typified the history of the southwest. When the history of the area is looked at in a broad sense, it is the result of many in migrations, even before the arrival of the Europeans. It has always been a place of trade and cultural mixing, of liaisons both licit and illicit, and of refuge for oppressed peoples fleeing other areas - from my great-grandmother's people, an offshoot of the Pueblerinos pushed south into the Sonora Desert, to my Jewish ancestors, and even my Irish great-grandfather, who worked in a mine in Arizona. Day by day, year by year, individual by individual, these people had lived out the consequences of war, of economic flux, of cultural and religious oppression, of poverty, of hope, of endurance. The one thing they had in common was the ability to begin again.

When I finished doing all the research, I had material for three novels. And for the first time, I understood my own connections to history and geography. More than just an intellectual exercise, or even an emotional or spiritual journey, this writing and research tied me to history as a whole.

Writing about family history has taught me that much of who we are is based on the unexplainable. And, in writing, we must follow those impulses and urgings in order to make a coherent whole. Often a hunch or an impulse leads to the information or material that can form the basis of a story, or even a book.

A few days after I began the story of Amalia, I received a note from my mother that the character I called Rosetta in the story, Amalia's sister, had died. She died the night I began writing, probably moments before I put that first sentence on paper. Perhaps I had been delaying until that moment.

This is how the story ends:

And so, not knowing how else to tell it, I have written this story. The Indians in this part of the country, the Northwest, have a term, sheel-shole, which means "to thread the bead." It refers to a way of traveling from inland to the ocean by guiding a boat from one interconnected lake to the next. My aunt Amalia is still alive, but it's only a matter of time before she paddles her canoe, yellow roses and all, out into the open sea.

The real "Amalia" lived for many years after. She read my story, along with my other books and stories, and liked them very much. She was very proud of the fact that I became a writer, and would parade me around the nursing home where she lived. By the end, she was agoraphobic, and refused to go outside for any reason. Afraid of falling, she confined herself to a wheelchair. She never owned much, living at the mercy of her relatives and public assistance, never with a thought that she was "owed" anything more. She died last week.

There are other stories about her, some sad, some happy. I'm not sure, yet how to tell them, if at all. The skeletons I found in the closet more closely resembled ghosts, moths, fireflies. I found the remnants of great civilizations, and the glowing embers of a sort of fatalistic optimism.

What I do know, is that a writer's main job is to always be open to the possibilities of story. Like the interconnected lakes, old stories lead to new ones, and lead to new ways of seeing and living in the world. Like Amalia clutching her yellow roses, I will continue to follow these stories wherever they lead me, the open sea of knowledge always beckoning just beyond the horizon.

- September 24, 2003.